Nga haerenga ki Kemureti (Trips to Cambridge)

10 minute read

‘This is a kahutōī, the Māori version of a chainmail suit of armour’ I explained, as I gestured toward the finely woven cloak laid out on a table in an examination space before MAA staff and myself. Being a former paratrooper, and a military historian, I was intrigued by this taonga (cultural treasure/artefact), and I immediately decided to return to Cambridge, and MAA in 2025; to undertake a more detailed examination, and to write a historical and technical report.

Figure 1. A kahutōī, edged with tassels of dog hair with fragments of red kaka feathers. New Zealand. Sandwich Collection, Trinity College, Cook Collection. MAA D 1924.80.

Kemureti, as Cambridge is called in te Reo Māori, holds a special place in my ngakau (heart). I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to visit your wonderful city several times during the past decade; having traveled to Ingarangi (England) from both Aotearoa New Zealand, and Australia, as part of research trips in 2014, twice in 2019, and again this year.

Late 2013

‘Like seriously, 31 colleges? Far out!’ I exclaimed as I accessed the Cambridge University website list of academic institutions. Where was I to start? I had learned that a historical figure from Aotearoa New Zealand had spent time at Cambridge but was unsure of which college he attended. I closed my eyes and pointed to a spot on my laptop screen, and when I opened my eyes, Queens’ College was the one I had selected. I rang that institution and spoke with reception staff, asking:

‘I realise that this may sound like a strange request, however, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about a Māori chief coming to Cambridge and helping write a book at your college at all?’

I expected a negative response and was ready for the inevitable answer, but to my astonishment it was quite the opposite.

‘Actually, I remember reading an article in our yearly journal about Māori chiefs visiting our college, written by Rev Dr Jonathon Holmes’ she replied almost nonchalantly.

The needle in a haystack, and a few months later, I would be on a flight to London Heathrow, to visit Cambridge, and Queens’ College, and to meet Rev Dr Holmes.

Jan 2014

My first visit to the City of Universities on the River Cam was ten years ago, and I had come to research the experiences of one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most pivotal historical figures, Māori chief Hongi Hika, who visited and stayed in Cambridge between August and December 1820. Hika had travelled to England onboard the Speke, arriving in Gravesend on 8th August, accompanied by fellow Māori chief Waikato, and Thomas Kendall, a missionary for the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Hika wanted to experience and learn about the homeland of the Pākehā (British) and meet King George III; whilst Kendall wished to assist linguist Professor Samuel Lee compile an English-Māori book on grammar, as well as be ordained as a priest. Kendall, a schoolteacher and a lay missionary, had been sent to live in Aotearoa New Zealand by the CMS and formed a close relationship with Hika, who was not only one of the most influential chiefs in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), but also the patron of the CMS Mission in Rangihoua in Te Pewhairangi (the Bay of Islands). In 1815, Kendall, with the help of Hika, and other Māori chiefs, including Tuai and Tītere, wrote A Korao no New Zealand, which was the first English-Māori dictionary, and published in Sydney, Australia. Lee was a linguist and author at Queens’ College and was working on a manuscript that would become known as A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand. Kendall felt that if he was not able to contribute toward Prof. Lee’s current project, then his own work would be relegated to obscurity.

This visit to Cambridge was part of a double research project, where I was also researching the experiences of former Māori military officer, Captain Whetu Werohia. He completed his commissioned officers’ training at Trinity College during 1917-1918, met and married a local woman, Dinah Margery Kempton, and returned to Aotearoa New Zealand to start their family. The family then returned to England to live in Cambridge for a time before the beginning of World War Two, which would see Whetu serve as a Captain with the famed 28th Maori Battalion in North Africa, Greece and Crete.

I arrived in Cambridge by train late at night. It was cold and wet, and my itinerary for the following day was extremely heavy: I needed to visit Queens’ and speak with Rev Dr Holmes; view a text in the Trinity College Library; visit the Cambridge University Library to view an original copy of Lee’s 1820 text; visit a scout hall to sight a war memorial; and visit the street where Hika stayed during his time in Cambridge. I checked into my hotel and walked to Queens’ College just so I knew where I was going, and how long it would take the following morning, before heading back to my accommodation for the evening.

The following morning, I set off for Queens’ where I met Rev Dr Holmes. I read the article that he had written, we discussed my research project (a historical novel), I was given a tour of the campus grounds and was also permitted access to the Old Library. Before I left, I changed into traditional period-style Māori attire, and had a few photos taken of me as Hika during his time at Queens’.

Figure 2. The author recreates a scene from Hongi’s visit to Queens’ College, in Walnut Tree Court. Image credit: Rev Dr Holmes.

Strangely, the Old Library did not have a copy of the Lee text, so I visited the Cambridge University Library, where I registered and applied for a membership card, before ordering an original book in the rare texts room. I was informed that it would take approximately an hour for the text to be available, so I went to grab some lunch, before returning to view the book.

I then attended Trinity College and was impressed with the scale and grandeur of the institution. I was shown the room in which Whetu Werohia resided whilst he was completing his officers’ training; it was in the same wing that Prince Charles stayed in when he attended Trinity. I viewed a copy of The Blunderbuss the magazine of the 5th Officer Cadet Battalion published by Trinity College, and I found records and images of Werohia as an officer cadet, and as a Lieutenant.

Figures 3 and 4. The author undertakes research in the Wren Library at Trinity College, and the text that he viewed. Image credits: James Kirwan (figure 3), and The Blunderbuss Magazine, December 1817 (figure 4).

Figures 5 and 6. Left – Whetu Werohia with his fellow officer cadets and training staff from A Coy, 5th Officer Cadet Battalion, in Neville Court, Trinity College, April 1918. Image credit: The Blunderbuss Magazine, December 1917. Right– A military portrait of Whetu having been commissioned as a lieutenant. Image credit: Whetu Werohia’s Military Personnel Files.

Next, was a stop at Pembroke College where I was hosted by Cavin Wilson, a former officer with the Royal Australian Air Force, and co-founder of the Soldier on Foundation, who was studying a Master of Philosophy, Economics. I had been a keynote speaker at a fundraising event in Sydney in 2013, and that is where Cavin and I first met. I was given a tour of the college before sitting down for a meal in the dining hall, and I left Pembroke as the sun began setting and the darkness of the English Winter set in.

Figure 7. The author with Cavin Wilson in Old Court, Pembroke College. Image credit: Author.

My day nearly over, I caught a taxi to the opposite side of town, where I had organised to visit the 12th Cambridge Scouts, who I was visiting for two reasons. Firstly, to pay respects to Whetu’s son, Sgt Pilot Blyth Kempton-Werohia whose name was on a war memorial in the scout hall. Secondly, I spoke with the scouts about Blyth’s service and how he lost his life in a Fairey Battle Bomber accident in Soup Harbor, Lake Ontario, Canada, during World War Two; and taught the scouts how to do a haka (Māori war challenge). A wonderful experience sharing Blyth’s pūrākau (story), leaving him a pounamu toki (greenstone neck ornament), and a fantastic end to my time in this wonderful city.

Figure 8. The author paid respects to his relative, accompanied by some of the 12th Cambridge Scouts. Image credit: Dave Craig.

Figures 9 and 10. The memorial plaque at the 12th Cambridge Scouts Hall. Image credit: Dave Craig. A portrait of Flight Sergeant Blyth Kempton-Werohia. Image credit: Auckland Weekly News, 1942.

Figure 11. The author teaches members from the 12th Cambridge Scouts how to do a Maori haka. Image credit: Dave Craig.

He haerenga a tuarua ki Kemureti (A second trip to Cambridge)

It was January of 2019, and I would find myself in Cambridge once again, undertaking additional research on Hika’s experiences in this city of academia. I had decided to work on the section within my historical novel that focused on Hika’s role in the story, and wanted to learn as much as I could before writing. I met with Rev Dr Holmes again, and took a tour of the campus and grounds, visiting the Old Library, and the Old Dining Hall. As I had begun filming re-enactments in both Aotearoa New Zealand, and Australia, for what had now transformed into an interactive historical novel, Rev Dr Holmes and I changed into period-style attire and shot several scenes throughout the campus grounds, which have since been screened as part of a short film titled Hongi’s Hikoi: A Trio of Travelers. I gifted my pounamu hei tiki (greenstone neck adornment) to Rev Dr Holmes as a symbol of my appreciation for his manaakitanga (hospitality). It was around this time that I began giving serious thought to working on Hika’s story as a stand-alone kaupapa (project), as I realized that 2020 was the bicentennial year of Hika’s journey to England. I mentioned this idea to Rev Dr Holmes, and he was supportive of us having our project launch at Queens’ in September the following year.

Figures 12 and 13. The author reads Rev. Dr Holmes’ article in his office overlooking the iconic Mathematical Bridge, and both re-creating a scene from Hongi’s visit to Queens’ College, in the Old Dining Hall. Image credit: Rev. Dr Holmes (left) and author (right).

I then returned to London, where I visited the British Museum. Here I viewed the kākahu (cloak) that Hika gifted King George IV when they met at Carlton House, Westminster, on 13th November 1820; and committed to returning later that year, to undertake a detailed examination of the kākahu, as well as begin planning our proposed series of bicentennial commemorative events. During his audience with the King, Hika was given several gifts from the King’s armory in Carlton House: a double-barreled sporting gun, a mounted officers’ helmet with a bearskin crest, a military straight sword and scabbard, a scarlet coat with blue facing and silver lace and buttons, a shako, and a leather stock. For some two centuries, it has been believed by many that the King also gifted Hika a chainmail suit of armor. However, my research, having had firsthand access to the registers and other documents in the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle, has not located any evidence to support this assertion. The MAA has an artwork called An Emblem of Wisdom…? created by Lisa Reihana, which is inspired by Hongi Hika’s kākahu and his visit to England.

He haerenga a tuatoru ki Kemureti (A third trip to Cambridge)

By June 2019, I had published an article Hongi Hika: A Portrait, and put my historical novel on hiatus, deciding instead to focus on Hika’s 1820 journey to England as an independent project. The idea was to curate a series of bicentennial commemorative events to be launched at Queens’ in September 2020 and delivered across several locations in England, Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand, between September to October of that year. My wife, and co-producer, Delise Kerehona, accompanied me on this trip, and it was a fantastic experience to share Hika’s pūrākau (story) with her. We viewed the Erasmus Room where our event was going to be held, and visited the Old Dining Hall where we were going to hold our formal dinner with the local Mayor, Queens’ staff and alumni, and possibly members of the Royal family, and Sir David Attenborough.

Figure 14. Maintaining relationships – the author and his wife, Delise Kerehona, with Rev Dr Holmes in September 2019. Image credit: Author.

We also visited MAA but discovered that it was closed, as it was a Monday, so our visit to the museum would have to wait until another time.

On our return to Sydney, plans for our series of bicentennial commemorative events were definitely underway, funding was being secured, and logistics sorted, until – the pandemic struck…

It was early 2020, and news of Covid-19 spreading around the globe had become an overwhelming daily focus. Initially, I didn’t realise just how much of an impact this pandemic was going to have and I held out hopes that our series of events may still be possible. It became apparent quite quickly, however, that the pandemic was having a major impact on the United Kingdom, with museums, universities, government offices, and businesses shutting down or limiting their services. By July, we realized that our events in England were simply not going to eventuate, and we had to postpone them indefinitely until the situation improved.

Fast forward to June 2022, and our series of bicentennial commemorative events went ahead in Australia, and then Aotearoa New Zealand the following month, however, unfortunately, our England-based events had to be cancelled.

He haerenga a wha ki Kemureti (A fourth trip to Cambridge)

Interestingly, my fourth visit to Cambridge wasn’t focused on Hika’s experiences in this city, but on a visit to MAA. Here I had arranged to view several taonga (artifacts) and conduct a detailed examination of a kahutōī (war cloak) with the aim of writing a historical and technical report about it. I had contacted Rachel Hand (Collections Manager in Anthropology), in the weeks leading up to my trip, and she had organized for me to be hosted by Guey-Mei Hsu (Collections Assistant in Anthropology), Dr Jocelyne Dudding (Collections Manager – Photographic Collections), Aayushi Gupta (Research Assistant, MAA Digital Lab), and Dr Anita Herle (Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow), who all provided me with a very warm welcome and every assistance during my visit. Initially, I examined an albatross down collar that records suggest once belonged to Ngāpuhi chief Hone Heke; who was Hika’s son-in-law, having married Hika’s daughter Hariata Rongo; a series of black and white photographs of a portrait of Hongi Hika in London; and an ātaahua (beautiful) kahu kurī (dog skin cloak).

Figures 15 and 16. Left – A section of cloth, its surface covered in albatross down, possibly a portion of a collar/scarf, that belonged to Hone Heke, Hika’s son-in-law MAA E 1901.191. Image credit: Author. Right – A kahutōī, edged with tassels of dog hair with fragments of red kaka feathers. New Zealand. Sandwich Collection, Trinity College, Cook Collection. MAA D 1924.80.

Figure 17. Black and white photographs of the original portrait of Rev Thomas Kendall and the Maori chiefs Hongi and Waikato by James Barry 1820. Image credit: Author.

Ko te tirohanga tuatahi o te kahutōī – Initial viewing of the kahutōī

Figure 18. The author and Aayushi Gupta discuss aspects of a kahu kurī (dog skin cloak). Image credit: Guey-Mei Hsu.

As beautiful as the kahu kurī was, the kahutōī was absolutely stunning. The interior was lined with narrow panels of dog skin sewn onto the kaupapa (framework) of the cloak, and the exterior being a tightly woven, almost impenetrable barrier to traditional Māori weaponry. This would have served much the same purpose as a chain mail suit of armor such as a hauberk. Woven with tōī (Cordyline indivisa) fiber on the outside, these cloaks were soaked with water before battle, which would cause the fibers to swell, making the cloak a more formidable garment in hand-to-hand combat. The kahutōī is a fantastic example of a garment of its type, considerably well-made; the inside surface consists of dog skin panels, which are as clean as any I’ve seen previously. The exterior surface is finely woven, with little to no visible damage, and the remu (lower edge) is finished with a clean narrow black tāniko border, under which a short fringe of loose tōī fibres can be seen, and longer strips of narrow dog skin panels protrude from below the tōī fringe. There are a few hukahuka kurī (dog fur tassels) on the right kauko (edge), and evidence that there were also some of the same on the left kauko. There is a small smear of what appears to be kōkōwai (a mixture of red ochre and oil) which was rubbed on the skin, and used to stain kākahu (cloaks), especially in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland).

Figure 19. The author, Guey-Mei Hsu, Dr Jocelyn Dudding, and Dr Anita Herle view the kahutōī. Image credit: Aayushi Gupta.

I am so taken by this kahutōī, that I plan on returning to Cambridge in 2025, to conduct a detailed examination of this Māori suit of armor and look forward to collaborating with the staff of MAA on this kaupapa rangahau (research project) at that time. It seems that Cambridge has a way of drawing me back to her, but who wouldn’t want to return to such a historically beautiful city as this that straddles the River Cam. Who knows, maybe you’ll see a Māori with a Moko Mataora (traditional facial markings) navigating his way around the streets of your city in 2025, much like Hika did 200 years ago; and if you do, please don’t hesitate to say Tēnā koe or Kia ora and have a kōrero (conversation) about my mahi (work) or just welcome me to your wonderful home.


  1. Heather Rewiri says:

    Loved the details in this article. Written in a user friendly tone that made it easy to stay interested.

  2. Patricia Te Arapo Wallace says:

    Kia ora Brent – this is so exciting.
    The very same kakahu D24.80 (which I believe Ta Hirini Moko Mead classified as a ‘puahi’) has drawn me back to the MAA many times – and I would be very interested to know precisely how you think it was worn.
    And more – when was the plant material of the kaupapa analysed?
    Go well!

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